This piece was written as part of my MA Journalism course back in 2016.
Tabletop gaming has undergone a renaissance in recent years, spurred onward by the availability of self-publishing marketplaces like WargameVault. These online storefronts have allowed many new designers to make the transition from homebrewer to content creator.
One of these rising stars is Ivan Sorensen who has seen much success since the release of Five Men in Normandy in 2013.
Ivan’s one-man operation has carved out a niche in the industry, producing simple narrative-driven skirmish systems in an environment dominated by complicated rulesets and glossy rulebooks.
Following the release of FiveCore Pulp in the last month, Ivan opened up about the rationale behind his latest ruleset and the design process in all his games.
FiveCore Pulp is a game of heroic adventurers exploring secret tombs in search of treasure. Ivan set out to create something very specific with his latest release.
He said: “I kept out of pulp gaming for a while, since a lot of it tends to go for the over the top, sort of Nazi-gorillas-on-the-moon kinda thing, and that’s fine but I’d rather just play a straight-up sci-fi game.”
With this in mind, FiveCore Pulp harks back to the pulp novels of the early 20th century and the more recent big screen adventures of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft.
His whole design philosophy is geared towards emphasising individual characters over large-scale set pieces, and FiveCore Pulp is no different. He said: “It’s about these human characters, with y’know, human limitations and failings. It’s recognisable, I guess.”
Bringing these recognisable human elements to the fore is something that permeates Ivan’s design philosophy through all his titles.
He said: “Skirmish gaming tends to sell itself short a little bit, because a lot of games are very focused on the mechanical, like there’s 8 different types of cover, every action has 40 different modifiers. This stuff isn’t what makes skirmish gaming interesting, I think it’s the idea that these are real little people.”
Ivan’s games attempt to bridge the gap between roleplaying games and wargames, bringing the concept of creating characters and forging narratives from games like Dungeons and Dragons and marrying them to the tactical battle mechanics of a wargame.
He said: “Growing up, I played roleplaying games, board games, cards, miniatures, I played everything I could get my hands on, I just liked games. But it was always very distinct, when you were wargaming, you were building a 2000 point army and fighting it out, when you were roleplaying you were making characters.”
“I think it was 2 Hour Wargames that really nailed it for me, you could take the best parts of both and make it a thing.”
2 Hour Wargames are a company that have pioneered fast-paced, simple rulesets for a variety of settings. Their core philosophy is that a game can be played from start to finish in two hours. While on the surface, these systems might appear quite simple, the depth lies in being able to string multiple games together into a campaign.
Ivan said: “If you just play it once, it doesn’t really strike you that there’s anything special about it, because it’s the same thing you’ve seen before, but once you play a couple of times and carry over the same gang or squad, suddenly you get it.”
These design elements permeate all his games, and help to set them apart from the rest of the market. Many tabletop skirmish games like Bolt Action or Force on Force focus on representing small-scale battles in detail, with specific statistics for types of tank or the quality of a specific unit.
Ivan’s games remove a lot of the mechanical clutter for the sake of simplicity and ease of play. His rulesets can still create interesting tactical dilemmas, but are much easier to get into and facilitate storytelling in a way his competitors don’t.
Looking to the future, Ivan said, “we’re going back to Five Parsecs from Home, which is kinda the FiveCore space opera, and there’s been a strong request from players of that to get a new version, to get a bit of an update ‘cause FiveCore skirmish is on it’s third major version, so some things don’t line up all that neatly and a lot of people wanted a standalone game.”
“And the Pulp book in a way was kind of a test run of that as well, of changing up a few mechanics a bit, and since the reception to that was pretty positive, it’s reassurance that you can be a bit more adventurous and move out a little bit more.”